If Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are to duplicate the success that they were able to find in 2013, they'll have to find a way to replace their top passer, rusher and receiver.
Everett Golson's departure was obviously the biggest storyline of the Irish offseason. But the losses of Tyler Eifert and Theo Riddick will present challenges of their own in the upcoming season.
Eifert, who has been a cog in the passing game for the past three seasons, racked up 685 yards receiving on 50 receptions with four touchdowns but will dawn tiger stripes with the Cincinnati Bengals this season. Theo Riddick emerged as the team's top rusher, with 917 yards last season on his way to becoming the Detroit Lion's sixth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
So who will pick up where these stars left off? Let's examine.
Passing: Tommy Rees
With Golson gone for the season, it would appear that the Golden Domers will be forced to go with Tommy Rees at quarterback.
That is, unless Malik Zaire or one of Notre Dame's other options is pressed into action by injury or incompetence. But for this scenario we'll assume that Rees, who started for the Irish in 2011, is healthy and avoids any midseason benchings.
Here's the good news: Rees isn't as bad as his shaky reputation in South Bend might indicate. As the 2011 starter, he completed 65.5 percent of his passes. Considering that he threw the ball 31.6 times per game, that's a decent number.
The bad news is that he threw 14 interceptions and struggled to push the ball downfield, averaging just 7.0 yards per attempt (66th in the nation).
This year we can assume that he'll see a similar number of throws per game. Golson threw the ball 26.3 times per game but also averaged seven rushing attempts per game. Those plays are likely to become swing passes for Rees, as he doesn't have the same athleticism for designed runs.
As long as Rees can show a little more development since we last saw him as a week-in, week-out starter, his numbers should look something like this.
Stat-Line Projection: 257-of-390, 65.8 %, 2,925 YDS, 22 TD, 10 INT
Rushing: George Atkinson
The Irish running game is a little bit more difficult to project.
George Atkinson was the leading rusher on the team last season, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be the team's top back this year. Cierre Wood entered 2012 as the back-to-back rushing leader for the Irish before injuries and the play of Riddick forced him to relinquish that title.
Either way there's a good chance that Kelly will utilize a running back-by-committee approach that gets optimal effort out of his stable of backs. As you can see in the following graph, Kelly didn't lean too heavily on any one ball-carrier in 2012.
With Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant leading a host of intriguing options behind Atkinson, there will be plenty of mouths to feed once again.
Still, the speedy Atkinson is the most experienced option of them all and poses a big-play threat anytime he touches the ball. He'll likely get plenty of outside zones and tosses to prove himself as a lead back, but time will tell if he can churn out the tough yards between the tackles.
Projecting what his final numbers will look like, you can't expect him to run for seven yards per carry again. Taking on the starter's role will mean that he's taking on fresher defenses and taking hits on more than a few two-yard dive plays.
Stat-Line Projection: 169 CAR, 845 YDS, 5.0 YPC, 7 TD
Receiving: TJ Jones
Tyler Eifert was technically the team's leading receiver last season, but TJ Jones wasn't far behind, with 50 receptions and 685 yards of his own.
Jones doesn't look the part of leading receiver for the Irish. Unlike Eifert (6'6", 251 pounds) or Michael Floyd (6'3", 224 pounds) before him, he doesn't contain a video game-like combination of freakish build and athleticism.
Instead, he should remind Notre Dame fans of Golden Tate, who has the exact same 5'11", 195-pound build as Jones and led the Irish in receiving back in 2009 with 93 receptions, 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Jones can really do it all at receiver. He's capable of turning a simple screen pass into a 30-yard gain but can just as easily high-point a fade pass in the back of the end zone.
Having Tommy Rees at quarterback might just improve his numbers, too. When Rees was the starter in 2011, leading receiver Michael Floyd caught 100 passes, an indication of Rees' penchant for locking on to his No. 1 receiver.
Jones is now that No. 1 receiver.
Rees will look for his tight end a lot, too. Eifert had 63 receptions that same 2011 season, but Jones is the most sure thing in this Notre Dame receiving corps and should be the focal point of the pass game.
Stat-Line Projection: 75 REC, 862 YDS, 11.5 YPC, 6 TD
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